Early North American Knitting Needle Gauges

Part 1 –Early Days and the Sizing Challenge

by Susan Webster, Australia

We  collectors of knitting needle gauges received the biggest present of our collecting lives in 2006, when Sheila Williams published the first research on British gauges in her The History of Knitting Pin Gauges.  This little info- and photo-packed volume is a great foundation for further research; and both Sheila and I have published later articles in the TCI Bulletin on fresh discoveries of British gauges.  Indeed, hitherto undocumented gauges appear every year or so, calling for another article by now.

But this research focuses on North American gauges up to about the 1960’s, for the development of this tool in Canada and the US proceeded quite separately from Britain.[1]  Part 1 of this article covers US gauges through the 1930’s.

First of all, gauges appeared in the US much later than in Britain. From the 1840’s on, British authoresses such as Mmes Lambert, Hope, Mee, and Gaugain advertised gauges of their own design and/or claimed descent from the Standard British Wire Gauge.   Up to the late 1880’s, it seems that US books on knitting either didn’t bother with the refinement of gauging the size of needles, or else they referenced English gauges[2].

Finally, around the 1900’s, some imported metal gauges appeared in the US.  Hardware stores sold metal knitting needles and advertised these in their mail order catalogues.  The early gauge in Figure 1 was made and sold in Germany, but it was also imported into the US and offered for sale in a Boston hardware store around the 1890s.  It is marked “STRIKNADELN: LEHRE,” which translates as “knitting needle gauge.”  The numbering against the holes does not match British gauge numbers.

Figure 1 – The Strikenadln Lehre[3]

 

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Figure 2 – S&L Inc Gauge  – date, advertiser, and manufacturer are unknown, but assumed to be early 20th century.  The only dating clues are the British “Imperial” sizing and the fact that expensive brass has been used. 

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After these early efforts, US firms didn’t bother with the sturdy brass and chrome of their British counterparts. About 70-80 years after gauges were developed in England, the US dived straight into celluloid, plastic, cardboard and aluminum.  Also, I have found no luxury gauges, like the ivory or silver fancies made in the UK.  US and Canadian silversmiths and jewelers made many other luxury knitting tools – needles, needlecases, knitting sheaths and point protectors, yarn bowls and bracelet yarn holders – but no gauges .

Early US Gauges – The Sizing Challenge

Aside from the undated S&L Inc gauge, the earliest US gauges I have are from the big yarn and haberdashery firms around the teens and 20’s of the 20th century, including.

  • J.K. (REG), “for knitting needles and crochet hooks” – I have been unable to trace this company (Figure 3)
  • Columbia Yarns, a brand name of Wm. H. Horstmann Company, founded in Philadelphia in 1816 (Figure 4)
  • Fleisher’s, a Cincinnati-based repackager of haberdashery and yarns, in business since at least 1902 (Figure 5)
  • Good Shepherd, a brand owned by The Shepherd Worsted Mills of Newton, Massachusetts (Figure 6)
  • Minerva, a brand name of “James Lees & Sons Company, Bridgeport, Penna” , the firm later joining with Columbia Yarns (Figure 7)

Most of these firms sold knitting needles marked with their brand name and sold (or gave away) gauges.

Figure 3 – A.J.K. (REG)’s heavy cardboard gauge.

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Figure 4 – Columbia’s celluloid gauge with the main sizing holes across the horizontal and with separate sizing holes for steel double point needles on the right side

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Figure 5 – Fleisher’s celluloid gauge.

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Figure 6 – The Good Shepherd gauge made of French ivory (very strong celluloid)

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Figure 7 – Minerva’s round celluloid gauge, issued through the 1930’s.

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A great conundrum in US and Canadian gauges is the conflicting systems of sizing.  Many yarn manufacturers developed their own systems of sizing their yarn, and hence, specifying the diameter of needles required to knit an item of a certain size.  A set of needles would fit in the same size hole on any gauge; but Columbia called the hole one number, and A.J.K. called it a different number.  Etc.  Endless posts in the on-line blog HistoricKnit deal with the efforts of modern knitters to establish what diameter needle the early US patterns actually called for.  These numbering schemes for needle sizes existed side by side with the British Imperial and the European metric schemes.

Up through the 1930’s, the issuers of gauges bemoaned the lack of uniformity and warned knitters to match their needles to the gauge and the patterns published by the gauge issuer.  The wordy Columbia gauge in Figure 4 warns, “Realizing the great annoyance caused to both consumer and dealer owing to the lack of uniformity in sizes and numbers of knitting pins and crochet hooks, we have standardized our entire line of these goods and prepared this gauge card.”

Plus, many firms continued to use English sizing or near-English sizing for their steel double-points, presumably because these needles originally came from the UK.

And, to add to the confusion, steel double-pointed needles were presumed to be a slightly different size from those made of celluloid or bone.  And “amber” (the name of an early synthetic) single-point needles were presumed to be a slightly different size from ordinary single points of bone, wood, or metal.  Many of the early gauges make an apologetic reference to these variations.

During World War I, the ladies’ magazine Modern Priscilla tried to encourage patriotic would-be knitters to support the fighting men by explaining the sizing challenge thus :  “Workers are often confused as to size numbers of knitting needles.  The table above [see Figure 12 below – ed] shows an actual size reproduction of the needles specified for the making of the different knitting articles in this book.”

In America there was also an American wire gauge sizing scheme, along similar lines to that in the UK.  Early US knitting needle gauges began to incorporate these wire gauge schemes and/or the metric system to try to establish a firm reference point for their own yarn and haberdashery numbering  schemes.

We do have two “Rosetta stones” for relating the size of needles specified in early US patterns.  The situation was so confusing that in 1918 a celluloid gauge made for the Dorothy Bradford brand related its hole sizes to Fleisher, A.J.K., and VB&H on one side of the gauge and to the Good Shepherd and Columbia schemes on the other. Thank Goodness !

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Figure 8a and b –  Dorothy Bradford celluloid gauge front and back.

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The Bradford  gauge states it was manufactured by Ehrman Manufacturing Co of Boston. It also provided the date it was produced, 1918, and a trade nickname for the name of the firm which owned the Dorothy Bradford brand, A.M.-W. & Co. of Boston (now identified as haberdasher Alfred Mayer-Weismann & Co).

The Dorothy Bradford brand name was used on knitting needles, knitting pattern leaflets, hair pin looping tools, and other haberdashery up to at least the 1960’s.  At some stage the brand name was taken over  by the Hero Manufacturing Co, the third big needle manufacturer in the US (after Boye and Susan Bates).

Another attempt to relate sizing for several brand names was the celluloid gauge produced by Diadem.  It seems that this company made only tools, not yarn.  The gauge related its holes  to each of two numbering schemes depending on which side of the card you looked at, calling the sides the “Diadem size card” for “such yarns as Columbia, Bear-Brand, etc.” and the “metric size card” to be used for “such yarns as Fleisher, Sunlight, Royal, Golden Fleece, Utopia”.

The Diadem gauge gave its relationships using the word “yarn”, whilst the Bradford gauge didn’t use the words “yarn” or “needles”, but rather used the term “gauge” in reference to the various brand names.  It did mention that its holes were for “knitting pins – amber or white – 10” and 14” long” and “crochet hooks – 6”8”14” long – double ends 16” long”.  To me this indicates that this gauge was not for steel or other metal sock needles, only for synthetic needles.

Figure 9a and b – both sides of the Diadem celluloid gauge.

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So, the Bradford and Diadem celluloid gauges related the sizing schemes of several of the large yarn firms of the era.  As time passed, these firms amalgamated or died out, and these early celluloid and cardboard gauges are the only gauge examples I have found for these brand names.  Gauges for some other early firms do turn up (see Figure 10).  The physical needles to match the sizing can be determined by sticking today’s labelled needles into the holes, of course !

Circular Needles and Paper Pattern Gauges

During the Depression and World War II, nifty celluloid gauges seemed to disappear, and the one sure source for checking needle sizes was on paper and cardboard packaging.  In fact, I  think this sort of aid started much earlier and continued through the war and the post-war years.

Figure 10- Gauges for Ber-Mel, a large yarn supplier, and for Van B & H (Van Blankensteyn & Hennings, a large haberdashery firm).

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The circular knitting needle was invented around the turn of the 19th century into the 20th.  Various countries now claim credit for this substitute for the vexatious set of four or five double points to knit circular items like socks, gloves, and beanies.  The earliest reference I can find is Abel Morrall’s wholesale catalogue of 1911.   This great British needle firm – which was eventually known by the name of its most successful product, the Aero brand of knitting needles with the grey aluminum shaft –  also seems to have coined the name Twin Pin for the circular needle.

Very few circular needles were made with a brand name marked on the needle, so the packaging was extremely important in an increasingly brand-conscious world.  And once the circular needle was separated from its packaging, it had no sizing – so, again, a gauge or other means of fixing the size was vital.  Manufacturers got around the problem by incorporating sizing aids on their packaging.

Figure 11 shows two US cardboard backing sheets with a sizing graphic and with different marketing messages.

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Figure 11a and b  – Backing cards for circular needles, each providing an outline against which needles could be rested to ascertain the size – or, as on the Jewel card, an outline through which a needle could be punched to check the size. I am not sure how reliable the Jewel method is, but similar aids appear on many other cards and boxes

Many other such backing cards, dating from the 1920’s and 1930’s, still show a variety of sizing schemes in addition to the outlines of the needles. Some of the references include BWG (British Wire Gauge), Mill[imeter] and [American] Standard sizes.

Similar sizing photos and line drawings also appeared in magazines, pattern leaflets, and even books. In 1917 Modern Priscilla used a photograph of needles in graduated sizes against which wartime knitters could measure their own needles. Page 4 of Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book, first published in 1938 in the UK, included a graphic of needle diameters, also  attempting to establish relationships between UK, US, and metric gauges.

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Figure 12 – the 1917 issue of  Modern Priscilla,  page 6, with a photograph of various needle sizes to which the patriotic knitter could match her own needles.

Then, somehow, magically, around the time of World War II, needle and gauge makers united around the “Standard American” size.[4]

 

To be continued.

[1]   My main purpose in writing this article is to assemble in one place all the information I have amassed over several years of collecting.  This is not a finished work; new gauges and new information continue to surface.  I am also happy to be corrected by anyone with more extensive knowledge.  Please do contact me if you can add any more information, or if I have erred in any of my own assumptions.

[2]   I thought this was an original observation, but returning to re-read No Idle Hands, I found that Anne Macdonald made a similar assessment in 1988 about U.S. knitting books with no reference to gauges or needle sizes.  Those I found with no reference to needle size included  Niles’  Fancy Work Recreations – A Complete Guide to Knitting, Crochet, and Home Adornment, 1884; Butterick Publishing Co’s Fancy and Practical Knitting, 1902; Leavitt & Allen Co’s, Knitting & Netting – Ladies’ Work-box Companion, 1848; and New York Tribune Extra No. 76 Stocking Knitting, 1880.

U.S. knitting books with references to English gauges :  Corly’s Knitting & Crochet – a Guide to Use of the Needle and the Hook, 1885, includes on p. 13 a hazy reproduction of a line drawing of a bell gauge with the name around the ring and the trademark device blurred out; the next page says “The one we illustrate is Walkers”.  The German gauges proceed on a different principle from the English or the American – the numbers running the reverse way.”  Stephens’ Ladies Complete Guide to Fancy Crochet, Knitting and Needlework, 1854, recommends the “eagle cardboard gauge” (the eagle gauge is well-referenced in English books, but is a very elusive creature).  The Starlight Manual of Knitting & Crochet, 1887, has a line drawing of the English Standard wire gauge, although many of the patterns in the book have no reference to a gauge or needle size.

[3]   This German-made gauge dates to around 1890, before the 1896 reform of writing and spelling in Germany, after which the “k” in words such as this was written as “ck” – my  reference is private communication from Heike Belter, 2007.  This example also has a leatherette case marked Chandler & Barber Co. Hardware, Cutlery & Tools, 124 Summer Street, Boston”.

[4] “Magically” means I can find no references to a specific decision to standardise.  Possibly this was an ad hoc result of wartime restrictions and the need to conserve materials to support the war effort.

Acknowledgements

Christina Bertrand

Clarice Birch

Patty Caras

Fibregypsy.com

Gay Lines

Nancy Nehring – www.lacebuttons.com

Joyce Poynter

Sheila Williams

All examples are from my collection except :

From the collection of Clarice Birch, Adelaide, South Australia – part of Figure 10.